It’s National Poetry Month and we want to take some time to introduce you to the amazing poets living through their words in the stacks of the Burlington County Library System! Today, we will be celebrating the memory of American poet Mary Oliver.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1984 and the National Book Award in 1992, Oliver was one of America’s most respected and popular poets. Despite her desire for a private life, Oliver’s writing catapulted her into the public eye with appearances on Oprah and the nationally-acclaimed radio program On Being. Her popularity has lauded her as “far and away, this country’s best selling poet,” and with several of her volumes topping bestsellers lists to this day, who could argue?
Born in Maple Hills, Ohio, Oliver started writing poetry at a very young age. She would wander through the woods near her home to escape a difficult and abusive home relationship. As a young woman, she left Ohio to live with her poetic hero Edna St. Vincent Millay. For a few years, Oliver assisted Millay’s sister in organizing the poets many papers and documents. At 28, Oliver published her very first book of poetry: No Voyage and Other Poems. Five volumes of poetry later, Oliver won the Pulitzer Prize for her volume of poems titled American Primitive.
Oliver’s prolific writing came from her ability to take deeply personal observations and turn them into universal perspectives. This is best demonstrated in her poem The Kingfisher. After taking the time to painstakingly describe the way this bird moves in the water hunting a fish, Oliver writes,
“He swings back / over the bright sea to do the same thing,
to do it / (as I long to do something, anything) perfectly.”
Here, Oliver demonstrates the same poetic prowess that often gets her likened to poets like Emily Dickinson and Ralph Waldo Emerson. She seamlessly finds a way to take a poem about observing a bird and circle it back to the observer and how they fit into the natural world.
Throughout her writing, Oliver maintains a focused meditation on the places she finds herself. In her book of essays and other writings, Long Life, she writes,
“People say to me: wouldn’t you like to see Yosemite?
The Bay of Fundy? The Brooks Range?
I smile and answer, ‘Oh yes—sometime,’
and go off to my woods, my ponds, my sun-filled harbor,
no more than a blue comma on the map of the world
but, to me, the emblem of everything.”
Much of her work is drawn from experiences in her own lifetime spent roaming out into the natural world of her 40-year home in Provincetown, Massachusetts with her partner Molly Malone Cook. Mary Oliver passed away on January 17, 2019 at 83 years of age. Her passing inspired countless writers and artists to write obituaries and tributes to a poet who made incredible use of her “one wild and precious life.”